* WARNING * This post contains spoilers for Once Upon a Time, Jade Empire, and Spongebob Squarepants
One of the best things about tabletop roleplaying games is that, in many cases, we find ourselves week after week weaving together a long story. In turn, one of the best things about a long story is that the tale can take its time and simmer, locking in all the delicious flavors. And, like a stew, most stories have villains and/or carrots. Savory fall-off-the bone simile aside, a carrot in it for the long haul usually has an amazing tale to tell. Unless you’re one of those weird people that doesn’t like villain stew, in which case, I’m not sure why you’re even here.
Instant Gratification Is For Sissies
Watching various stuff on TV with my family is a great way to get exposure to a beautiful rainbow of villainy, each shade of black just a little different than the next.
I watch a lot of cartoons with my son. (OK, admittedly I would watch them if he wasn’t home.) Frequently with shows like this, you have villains with simple goals (and usually fairly simple methods). This doesn’t mean the goals aren’t big, but the steps involved are usually few. Take, for instance, Plankton from Spongebob Squarepants. He is incredibly smart (well, for that show anyway) and has a vast array of weird superscience at his disposal. Despite this, he has but one goal in life: to get the Krabby Patty Secret Formula from Mr. Krabs. He has a different plan every episode in which he appears, and there’s never any improving upon existing plans or doing something that will reap future benefits. (Well, OK sometimes this happens on Spongebob , but it usually takes place as a nonsequitur.) Lots of shows have this sort of format, especially monster/villain-of-the-day stuff like Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers (any iteration will do) or even He-Man.
Lately, my wife and I have been rapidly consuming Once Upon A Time. I wasn’t sure what to make of the show at first, what with the Evil Queen’s overacting and random tiny plot holes. It was Rumplestiltskin’s story that finally hooked me. They’d been hinting that he was way worse than the Queen for awhile, and *spoiler alert!* when they slowly revealed that pretty much every thing that’s happened ties into his master plan — stuff that I would never have dreamed would qualify for inclusion in an evil plan, like coming up with a master plan for someone else before they’re born and guiding their whole life toward it thereby setting it in motion so you can completely hamstring yourself and wait three decades to make your next move HOLY CRAP WHAT — I realized he’s the kind of villain I want to create when I grow up. The Glorious Strategist from Jade Empire is another great example of a villain with a decades-long plan that doesn’t make any sense until it crushes everyone. *spoiler alert!* Any plot that involves raising one of your sworn enemies from birth to do things you can’t when they grow up qualifies for a gold villainy star. And, as much as I hate to admit it, Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars is a good example of this as well. That guy pulled a lot of strings before he got to sit in a chair and taunt people about their feelings.
How To Be Evil In Three Excruciatingly Long Steps
The problem with creating a villain with a long and meticulously detailed master plan for one’s campaign is, well, it’s really hard.
Coming up with such a plan in the first place is difficult enough. If you’re writing a story, you can figure out ways to hook up the strings to your various puppet-characters and make them dance. PCs, at least in my experience, have a way of either not taking the bait or (more likely) setting the bait on fire and burning your house down. So, what’s a DM to do?
My first thought is to figure out the components of a good long-term master plan. I have come up with the following:
1. It takes a long time
I’m not just being facetious here. The plan has to last long enough that, even if anybody knew what the villain wanted to start with, it’s not on anyone’s mind by the time it hits. You can bet they remember when it does, though.
Although roleplaying games technically don’t need to conform to realistic timeframes, the PCs probably aren’t going to be around for an entire multi-decade-long plan (kudos if you can pull it off, the thought gives me chills). Plenty of good stories have them around for the end of one, though. Depending on what is happening in your campaign, especially with travel time, a year or two of either in-game or real time might work well.
2. You make everyone else do all the work
Getting involved directly ruins everything. If you want somebody dead, you figure out a way to make someone else want them dead (preferably in a way that doesn’t involve you). Ideally, you have people doing things for you not having any idea why they are really doing it. Adventurers seeking glory, treasure, and especially justice can be made to do a lot of things for good reasons very unlike the ones you have for making them do it.
Giving your players enough information to make them want to take a quest but not enough information that they can smell a rat can be tricky. Personally, I’m not very subtle, so I prefer just to leave out information that can get me busted unless I’m ready for it to happen. It still happens sometimes, anyway. My players can look into my soul.
3. Think several moves ahead
One of my friends is pretty good at billiards, and he told me once that good players aren’t thinking about the current shot. They’re thinking 2-3 shots ahead, about how the way you leave the balls on the table will make the other player shoot — and how that’s going to affect how the table is when you get to shoot again, so you can plan how you’ll leave it for the other guy, etc. Pool is a villain’s game.
In a campaign, this might be accomplished through laying out a rough outline of the moves your villain is going to make next. This could be as simple as making an outline of adventures for your players corresponding to each thing the villain wants them to do. It might be something you can plan right from the start of the campaign (this seems like a pretty good use of the 5×5 method), but you’d better be ready to try something else if the PCs find a way off the rails.
Mixing It Up
What I would like to try in my next campaign is a mix of short-goal and long-goal villainy, likely with the evil mastermind pulling the strings of his more myopic brethren. This would allow the use of an episodic format with the potential for a campaign climax that ties a bunch of stuff together and squeezes my players in a vise-grip of terror.